Take temperature of ice bath (3 times)
Take temperature of sous vide water bath set to 125 degrees (10 times)
Take temperature of boiling water (3 times)
Use thermometer to make Easy Caramel Sauce
Use thermometer to make Slow-Roasted Beef
Use thermometer to make Pan-Seared Inexpensive Steak
Use thermometer to make Easy Grill-Roasted Butterflied Chicken
Three users (a mix of righties and lefties and novice and experienced cooks) used each thermometer to check the temperature of baked potatoes inside an oven and of boiling water on the stove
If you cook or bake regularly, you should have a food thermometer. A good thermometer takes the guesswork out of cooking, telling you exactly what’s going on inside your food. The old dial-faced ones are slow and imprecise: Digital is the only way to go.
We’ve highly recommended the ThermoWorks Thermapen Mk4 ($99.00) for years. In addition to being accurate, intuitive, and maneuverable, it has a rotating display, a backlight, and a motion-sensored sleep feature with auto wake-up for superior usability. But recently, competition has emerged, and many of the new options are much cheaper. Could any top our old favorite? To find out, we gathered 11 digital thermometers priced from $11.95 to $99.95, including the Mk4 and the ThermoWorks ThermoPop ($29.00), our top-rated inexpensive model. We put them through a taxing series of tests, examining accuracy, speed, comfort, visibility, ease of use, and durability.
Accuracy and Speed Are Paramount
Our first tests were all about accuracy—because if a thermometer’s inaccurate, what’s the point? We used each model to read the temperatures of a 32-degree ice bath, 212-degree boiling water, and a 125-degree sous vide water bath (the temperature of a medium-rare steak), repeating the first two tests three times and the third test 10 times and checking the thermometers against a lab-calibrated reference thermometer. The most imprecise models were off by about 2 degrees—not enough to ruin a dish but not exactly confidence-inspiring. Our top-rated thermometers were within 1 degree of accuracy every time. We also preferred those that gave us whole numbers rather than decimal points, which we found distracting; after all, it doesn’t matter if your steak is cooked to 125 or 125.2 degrees.
Speed was crucial, too. The thermometers in our lineup took from 2 seconds to just under 12 seconds to provide a temperature reading. Twelve seconds may not seem like much, but when our hands were hovering over a steaming pot of boiling water or bubbling caramel sauce, it felt like an eternity. The best thermometers read in just 2 to 3 seconds, allowing us to get in, check the temperature, and get away from the heat.
Thermistor versus Thermocouple
Our 10 digital thermometers used either a thermistor or a thermocouple to measure temperature. We found that while the two temperature-taking technologies work differently, they were both fine for our needs in the kitchen. Learn more about the two styles.
Size and Design Matter
All the thermometers we tested have two basic parts: a metal probe that sticks into the food and a handle that houses any controls. The size and design of both played into how comfortable and easy to use the thermometers were. Some models had very small handles with nowhere to rest our fingers; we could only pinch-grip them with our thumb and pointer finger, which felt a bit dainty. Others were slippery or sloped. A few had decently sized handles, but their screens, power buttons, or control panels took up too much space, minimizing the grippable zones and making it hard to read the temperature while keeping a secure grasp. The most comfortable models had long, broad handles with screens positioned near the probe. This meant there was more room on the back end for us to grip the thermometer multiple ways with our full hand, like a strong handshake, which felt more secure.
Two of the thermometers also had short probes: At 3 inches or less, they couldn’t reach into the center of a large roast or a broad steak. We liked probes that were at least 4 inches long; they could reach anywhere we needed them to while keeping our hands farther away from the heat.
Additionally, we preferred thermometers with probes that unfolded like a switchblade rather than straight ones with separate covers to keep track of. But among the seven switchblade-style models, there were some noticeable differences. Three of the models were much simpler to use, with a single step for powering on: Simply swing open the probe and go. The other thermometers all required two or three steps to turn them on: Open the probe and press the power button or, in the worst case, press a button to release the probe, open the probe, and then press the power button.
Tension also mattered: One thermometer’s probe was really loose, while another’s was very stiff. The best models struck a balance, with enough tension for us to use them at offset angles but not so much that they were a bear to open and close. And while most of these switchblade-style probes opened to 180 degrees, one went further, to 225 degrees, meaning we could use it at an offset angle in both our right and left hands—a nice perk that kept our hands out of the pot and even farther away from the heat.
Extra Features Made All the Difference
Most of the thermometers boasted extra features, but not all were created equal. For example, we found minimum and maximum buttons superfluous. (You don’t need the thermometer to tell you the temperature range over the span of a few seconds if you’re standing there looking at it.) However, we appreciated displays with digits that rotate as you move the thermometer; this is great for lefties and anyone who needs to adjust their grip during use so that they don’t have to read the temperature backward or upside down. Some models rotated the digits two ways, flipping them 180 degrees; others rotated four ways, so the digits could face all sides of the screen. But the Mk4 went a step further: You can actually choose whether the display rotates two or four ways or opt to lock it in a single direction.
Our winning instant-read thermometer features automatic wake, sleep, and backlight functions; a rotating display; a 4.3-inch folding probe; and ample room for a range of hand positions.
We also liked thermometers with backlights, which were extremely useful for grilling at night or reaching into dark ovens. Six of the 11 models had them, but the Mk4 is the only one that turned on automatically in low-light conditions. Another model, from OXO, didn’t have a backlight but instead had a black screen with white digits, making it easy to read even in low light. Another automated feature we valued was sleep mode, in which thermometers turn off when not in use. While a few models we tested have this ability, only three—including the Mk4—had both sleep mode and an auto wake-up feature so they turn on again as soon as they’re moved (if the probe remains open). This prevents you from having to stop what you’re doing, close the probe, and open it back up to power on the thermometer.
Does the Mk4 Still Reign Supreme?
After more than 50 hours of testing, we found a few decent basic models, but only one was able to hold a candle to the Mk4 and do so with a smaller price tag: The Lavatools Javelin PRO Duo ($49.99) is fast and accurate and has a big, clear display. Its backlight is motion-sensored rather than automatic (it takes quite a firm shake to activate it), it has sleep mode with auto wake-up, and its digital display rotates 180 degrees. It wasn’t quite as comfortable as the Mk4, and its single button operated three features (hold, minimum, maximum), which testers found a bit confusing. But for $50.00 less than the Mk4, it’s a good deal; we’re naming it our favorite midprice thermometer. The ThermoWorks ThermoPop ($29.00), a very basic, fast, and accurate model, is again our winning inexpensive option. If you want the best, though, the ThermoWorks Thermapen Mk4 ($99.00) is still the way to go. It’s quick, precise, and intuitive. And unlike any of the other models we recommended, you can calibrate it rather than replace it if it becomes less accurate. Additionally, it’s waterproof for up to 30 minutes in up to 3¼ feet of water, so it can survive an accidental dip in the sink or a sous vide water bath—or a night in the rain, if disaster strikes.